Life at the Bar

Why I Want to be a Barrister

One of the things about having a search function is that it reveals what you haven’t written about, as well as what you have. I was surprised to find that I hadn’t covered this topic and I thought it might be useful if I did. I know that you all want to be barristers, but there is nothing wrong with articulating the reasons why – it often clarifies thinking and sheds new light on decisions yet to be made. It is also important because in recent years many of the city firms have recruited on the basis that you can join them and do nothing but advocacy.

Of course, for every advantage there tends to be a disadvantage and it is sensible to take those disadvantages into account when deciding on career paths. So, in no particular order I have listed below the factors that make the Bar appealing in my view. I have added, at the end of the post, some good reasons not to go to the Bar.

  1. I work for myself. For me, this is the number one issue. I have no objection to being beholden to someone to do the best job I possibly can – that is how barristers feel towards their clients. But I want my success measured by how well I do my job, not by how well I get on in the office. I do not want to feel that advancement requires the approbation of someone I dislike or don’t rate. I want to keep the money I earn instead of what someone else thinks I’m worth of the money I earn. I actually don’t mind calling someone ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ but I want to chose who that person is and the criteria adopted. I want to take the key decisions at the key moments. All those things together make my life rich, interesting and exciting.
  2. Linked to the above, I want control over my practice. Now, of course, there are some people who do have an influence over professional advancement and there are equally areas over which barristers have little control. But I decide what type of work I do and whether to take opportunities offered or whether those opportunities are to be passed up. I decide if I will take the fee on offer for a particular (non-criminal) case. Even junior barristers can do this – it is always a struggle with your clerk but it is one that can be won.
  3. I enjoy the camaraderie. The Bar in the provinces is an intensely friendly profession. We know the tiny, tiny minority who cannot be trusted and everyone else gets on. Your colleagues will cheerfully help you with your work, give you advice on how to approach the Judge with a tricky point and point you in the direction of recent authority. They will also gossip like mad (it’s a small profession) and laugh their heads off as you get a nose ender in cross-examination. You can fearlessly discuss your worst point with your opponent, knowing that he will not misuse the information – and you can often thereby save clients time, anguish and money.
  4. I enjoy the vocational element. I truly believe that what barristers do is useful. People need representation – they are often too unsophisticated or ill-educated to advance their own case and they are always too subjective. The more disgusting their beliefs or their behaviour, the more important it is that the jury or the Judge decides the case on the evidence and that the result is not determined because the legal profession turns its nose up. That is the arrogance and the tyranny of private law (the original meaning of the word ‘privilege’). I refuse to judge my clients – not because I am a moral void or because I like criminals or wrongdoers (one of the most disgraceful slurs to come from politicians seeking popularity) but because I believe that the law should be the same for everyone and that it ought to be someone’s job to make sure it is.
  5. I enjoy the flexibility. If I want to watch cricket all day and work all night then, if I’m not in Court, I can. No one makes me clock in. I can go on holiday when I like, providing I’m not letting anyone down. When I have lots of work to do I can work as many hours as I can physically manage. When I have less work to do I can take a long walk or go and see friends. I never have to go and do something just because it is important that I fill a set number of hours per day.
  6. My job is endlessly interesting. I meet lots of different people who do lots of different jobs. Most are interesting about at least parts of what they do. Even though the issues may repeat themselves, they do so in unlimited permutations of different facts and personalities. Each legal issue carries with it the need to ensure the evidence founds the submission, the need to counter ones opponent in terms of evidence, law and strategy and the need to carry the Judge with you. The case changes daily in court. Outside court it needs to be planned out, challenges foreseen, traps laid and bluffs undertaken.
  7. There is always the opportunity to improve. Measuring progress is one of the great pleasures or one of the great pains. But it is rare that there is no further opportunity to get it right next time. Plenty of people who do not shine at the beginning of their careers go on to achieve great things. And plenty who were future Lords of Appeal at 2 years call succumb to the pressures and go nowhere.
  8. There are negative reasons as well. The chief of these is that there is no other job that offers such a chance to do advocacy. Solicitors do some, but they are not usually the best people to do a long or difficult trial and very few have the experience and expertise required. They are also frequently more expensive – especially if a solicitor is also required. The overheads carried by solicitors are vast compared to those of the Bar and the prices charged reflect that. Clients who want the best people and the best value usually end up with a barrister. Plus which, expertise atrophies unless frequently exercised. The discussion and testing of approaches and tactics which goes on in Chambers is constant and often informal. Just because it happens over a drink or a coffee does not mean it doesn’t count though. Solicitors do not seem to have the same approach or the time to adopt it.
  9. Being a barrister is still the best way to become a Judge. How many other careers offer the chance to start a new job at 50+? You may not want to, but the possibility is there and how many people are confident, aged 25, about their wants and aspirations 25 years later?
  10. I enjoy the competition. Most barristers are bright, focussed, competitive, prepared to take risks and prepared to confront difficulties. Pitting oneself against those people is fun.

If you find these reasons bizarre, or they do not appeal to you or they appal you, then it may be that you have a different take or it may be that this is not the job for you. The lack of security, in particular, can be hard to take. It’s nice to keep what you earn – the corollary is that if you don’t work you don’t earn at all and the Chambers expenses still have to be paid. Your holiday is unpaid. Illness can be financially devastating.

Now for reasons to go to the Bar which are rubbish.

  1. You will earn loads of money. Actually you probably won’t. But even if you do, it strikes me as a poor reason. You won’t enjoy the Bar unless you see it as more than an opportunity to earn. If you don’t enjoy it you probably won’t be much good at it. What’s more, you need a life. As time goes on you will hopefully acquire a life-partner/signifcant other/spouse. You will want to spend time with that person and they will want to spend time with you. The Bar makes that difficult enough as it is. If you are so motivated by earning large sums that you have to take work on holiday, or miss birthdays then your personal life will turn to dust. If that doesn’t bother you, you will be odd.
  2. You will be perceived as very important. Wrong again. You have an important job but that is not the same thing. Your criminal client will try to forget you whatever the result. Your personal injury or family client will be grateful to you if you win, and not if you lose. And the gratitude will be fleeting. Your corporate client will regard you as an employee of sorts. This country barely respects doctors any more – lawyers are ranked with estate agents and politicians.
  3. You will bear the flaming sword of truth. Unlikely. Every case has a loser. You will represent scoundrels, liars, opportunists, people of flexible morality and people who wouldn’t recognise their  conscience if it stood next to them and screamed ‘Hello, I’m Jiminy Cricket’. That is why I suggest your commitment is to the process – leave the substantive decisions on right and wrong to the Judge and the Almighty, both of whom have had many years of practice…

Comments welcome, as ever.


34 thoughts on “Why I Want to be a Barrister

  1. Aw Simon, I think this post was slightly more cheerful than “The Chance of Success”.

    It’s quite true that being a barrister and making a ton of money seems nowadays to be somewhat of a fallacy. Countless tutors at univerisities are bright sparks that made it to the bar but couldn’t get enough work to stay afloat. Unless of course you are David Omerod, but he is a different kettle of fish.

    I admit that I am guilty of 1. wanting to earn a lot of money and 2. wanting to bear the sword of truth, I gather that this is not uncommon amongst most people who wish to go to the bar.

    Lawyers are barely respected anymore? Were we ever? I always thought that they had us down with the taxman, traffic wardens, ticket inspectors etc.

  2. Great post. I’m having a rather “challenging” week, looks as if I’ll be in chambers until midnight (hence why I have yet to get back to you re that post) …your post just reminded me why I’m here 🙂

  3. As a fresh out of the box, squeaky clean bar student, it seems everyone else in an equivalent position has also found your site, and all are equally appreciative of your efforts.

    Perhaps, if a few more senior practitioners were willing to follow your admirable lead, the public perception of the Bar and its practitioners would improve. It would nice to think the collective could aim to drag themselves up to a level which is at least marginally higher than that of estate agents.

  4. Certainly. Starting below:

    Having not covered the topic previously, this is why I love my job.

    Even though the lack of security is risky, I like working for myself, being at the sharp end and being judged on how well I do paperwork and advocacy, rather than politics. That gives me control over my maximally flexible and varied life, which is always interesting. I enjoy the camaraderie of my colleagues and the strategic and tactical challenge of coming up against them. When I represent those who need it, rather than judging them when that isn’t my job, I feel that what I do is genuinely of use to society. Despite rumours to the contrary, I can’t do this in any other profession and, what’s more, there is the possibility of a career change at 50.

    I don’t do it for the money, the moral glamour or so that I am perceived as important.


  5. This is a really interesting post, however in relation to point 1, I cant see many junior tenants picking who they are going to work for, my own view is that during the early stage of their career, they will be doing whatever they can to please their head of chambers / clerks, regardless of the rate of pay.

  6. I have enjoyed 1, 2 and 5-7 since I “spat the dummy” at the end of 1995. However, there are plenty of ways to enjoy these things outside the Bar. Once I became “available” I realised that there are lots of people who need things doing that don’t fit within their usual day-to-day work patterns.

    9 applies to the extent of “How many other careers offer the chance to start a new job at 50+? ”

    Probably the thing that most propelled me towards the Bar was 3. Working within other people’s organisations for periods from a few days to a few years (on and off) I envied the belonging and water-cooler culture. However, I was unwilling to give up 1,2 and 5-7 and the Bar seemed a unique solution.

    As to 4, I used to believe passionately in what I did but I had become the priest in the Graham Greene novel who has lost his faith but contines to perform the mass, because there’s something, something, …

    Advocacy (8) and competition (10) are dirty words in business. As in “you spend too much time advocating your position and not enough time trying to work with so and so” and “we need less competition here and more team work.” I wanted both.

    Good call?

  7. I would like to endorse virtually every word of this. I came o the Bar relatively late in life and now combine it with an academic career (and practise in the same city as Simon). It really is nothing like the popular image of the Bar, but there are many rewards, independence of thought and action being not the least of them). But if I were doing it just for the money, I think I would find that very soul-destroying.

  8. Hello,i got directed to your blog from a student forum and i have a few questions to ask if you do not mind:
    1) Do you find it difficult being self-employed i mean how do you get cases.
    2)What made you choose the Bar instead of being a solicitor?
    3) How do you go about finding a chamber?


  9. Being self employed doesn’t mean that you have to find cases yourself. A barrister is ultimately self employed however within each chambers there are barrister clerks, who build up contacts with solicitors firms, and bring work in and give it to individual barristers. Solicitors refer cases onto barristers ( though probably not for long if it’s a legal aid case)

    However once you are a QC they are likely to ask for you by name, and therefore clerks are more reliant on the barrister to bring work in so they can get paid.

    3. Barrister Chambers/Sets, can be found on the web google Chambers and Partners to see a list of chambers and their specialisms.

    Can’t answer the second question for you as I’m not Simon! But hope that helped anyway!

  10. I have only just come across this blog and found it an interesting read. I have recently applied for BAR school and still debating whether I am making the right choice. My initial thoughts were to do the LPC as it seems the safer option, being the mature student I do want a family at some point and I see the BAR hindering that. Lecturers are currently telling us there is no point in applying as the economic climate has effected pupilages? I confused! Any help?

    1. Mandy what did you end up doing? It’s just that I’m in the same situation as you. I too am entering the profession a bit later than most and have to think about how it might affect a family when I have one. I have thought about doing the LPC as it’s a safer option especially as I am aware that pupillages are very difficult to get during this economic climate, but my heart is set on the bar. It’s an expensive decision to get wrong. My worst nightmare would be to do the BPTC and not get a pupillage..

  11. I absolutely love his blog and have read it over and over again whilst attempting to fill out my Oplas form.

    Then it dawned on me…the form is only part of it! What about when where interviewed?

    I want to be a barrister, I always have. I’m not on a crusade of justice, or feel so full of self importance than I insist I want to stick up for “poor peoples rights”, but I just like advocacy… I like being right, I like to be well informed and a bit of a smart-arse, to be quite honest I absolutely love competition and most of all I love law! But saying this in an interview wouldnt get me a pupillage would it? 😦

  12. If only I could believe that the Bar was so ‘open’ and ‘friendly’. No matter how many times this is advertised, if your not born with a silver spoon, I think you have to work harder to gain respect in this profession. That’s my reason for wanting to join the Bar, it’s about time there were a working class female firework in a wig!

    1. Jessica,
      I do understand that it is difficult feeling that you are an outsider looking in. Obviously I can’t speak for all Chambers, let alone for all barristers, but I do not feel that to be generally correct. I do accept that whilst the profession changes, it is not necessarily good at dispelling preconceptions. In mitigation. most of us have an awful lot of other things to do.

      I worry about a firework in a wig. Apart from the fire hazard, are we talking rocket, catherine wheel, roman candle or sparkler? Regardless, I hope you make it.

  13. This is a brilliant article 🙂 Nice to know that there are people out there who have similar reasons for wanting to be a barrister as I do. And a great example of how not to say “I love advocacy so I want to be a barrister” which has to be the most overused phrase in pupillage application history!

    Also this phrase has made my day: people who wouldn’t recognise their conscience if it stood next to them and screamed ‘Hello, I’m Jiminy Cricket’.

  14. This is a great post on a very useful site. I am an employed barrister (yes, we do exist) and am about to leave the security of a monthly salary, sick pay and all the other benefits to go to the independent bar. The reasons listed above are why I am making this mad decision.

    To the poster above who said you had to have been born with a silver spoon to get anywhere; no you don’t. I worry that this sort of talk puts people off who think that all barristers are a certain type. I went to a comprehensive school and no one in my family has any connections with the law. The bar is actually a decent meritocracy because solicitors don’t care where you went to school or university; they won’t instruct you unless you are good and you live or die on your reputation. Yes, there are access issues with getting that far (and the debt doesn’t help) but the bar really is about how good you are not who you are.

  15. I am a chartered building surveyor and run my own practice. I identified immediately with the reasons for wanting to control my own work and earn my keep doing what I do best and keeping clients happy without worrying about the ‘boss’ and his cut in everything I earn.

    I studied for a degree in Surveying between 1986 and 1991 by the arduous task of part-time study (day-release employment) and I happened to stumble upon a course that was very legal and had a bias towards legal studies. In my second year 1987/88 my law lecturer, a barrister herself of good repute, noticed I had an excellent perception for seeing both sides (or the many sides even) of an argument and that once I had bitten down on one side I would pursue that argument even if I ended up realising I would be backing the losing horse. She remained my law lecturer for another two years and would constantly remind me that I could and should take the CPE and then pursue the law as a barrister. I felt honoured and flattered by this, but life gets in the way.

    Today I see myself as an armchair barrister and I am happy to enter a legal debate and offer my opinion and thoughts on a situation usually involving something to do with property, party walls and construction law. I can also wrestle with contract law too!

    Whilst I think I would have probably made a decent living as a barrister-surveyor, the two lines can mix and there are other examples of such cross-discipline, I think I like sticking my head in lofts and crawling around in basements too much to constantly be doing my best to argue that black is white or that red is not a colour but a species of herring. That said, I admire barristers in particular and even the ones who have made every effort to make me a right chump as an expert witness have my respect. I feel that even when they try and make you look as if you were born yesterday they retain a certain respect for my clear and brief answers just to keep them on their toes as well.

  16. I never knew that barristers could work for themselves. It would seem that this would be a good career if you are self-motivated. If you were looking for a barrister, you would probably also want to find someone who is self-motivated.

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